Old Buddy Old Pal


Our walks used to be better. He would come up with questions from left field and coax new thoughts out of me, while we bought bananas at a Hasidic fruit stand in Williamsburg, watched a Mets game in an Irish bar in Inwood, took tastes of Polish sausage at a Greenpoint meat market. The idea was to roam the city and talk to each other, instead of sitting together facing a TV like other guys. “What was the point of that experiment with the dead frogs and the electricity?” he asked one time. I didn’t know, but I knew the scientist’s name was Galvani and galvanizing comes from his name, so then we played with the idea of bringing dead frogs back to life with electric shock and storing them in galvanized garbage cans. That led to an appreciation of doctors for the indisputable usefulness of their work, and from there to the opposite end of the spectrum, the lifeless and/or surly civil servant, and the corruption scandal at the Parking Violations Bureau, and my theory about parking meters, that since all those coins can’t possibly fit inside the small gray meter-heads, the poles must really be conduits to underground pipes that suck the money downtown, and with a pickaxe you could siphon off a substantial income. I think that was the same night we debated the morality of the death penalty.


Bits of every friendship I’ve ever had went into this novel. Though it includes many pieces of autobiography, the main plot is fictional. In planning the book, I labeled the dominant friend “A” and the follower “B.” When it came time to give them names, it seemed natural to turn A into Alan and B into Burt. In other words, without my planning it, the idea of an Alpha male (and, I guess, a Beta) became embedded in the characters’ names.

For this book and others that came later, I went out and took notes on the physical setting of every scene. The chapter set at a Yankee game turned into a memorable experience: I never stopped writing until the game was over.

(I didn’t really become a doctor, as Burt does at the end of the book. I have a habit of passing out at the sight of incisions and internal organs.)

About the cover: I suggested to the designer that he use images of pairs—two friends walking, the double arches of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Twin Towers. The book came out in 1999, two years before 9/11; now, the cover seems to promise (falsely) a story about a friend who died at the World Trade Center.